Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Drowning in feelings:

I've read a handful of books over the last couple of years that left me wrung out and flapping, faded, in the breeze. The Chaos Walking trilogy makes the list of such books, as does Mockingjay. And now I must add The Drowned Cities to the roll-call of Books That Ruined Me For a While.

It works as a stand-alone story, but The Drowned Cities is actually the sequel to Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship-Breaker, the story which introduces a dystopian America wallowing under swamplands and forests, reeling in the wake of Chinese occupation (the brave new world's superpower) and torn apart by civil war. The imagery of America in ruins is vivid and weirdly compelling. I got a picture of all bayou. The land is disappearing and the swamps are overtaking. Jungle pushes up through abandoned cities, criss-crossed overhead by the shadows of abandoned overpasses and highways.

The inhabitants of this weary America are people from all races. Civilians live in terror of the warlords and soldier packs which run rampant through towns and villages, and civvies and soldiers alike fear the terrifying half-men created through genetic experimentation to be super-weapons in the hands of the military. Neither entirely human nor entirely animal, the giant half-men are a race of their own, possessing the ferocious power of each element that makes up their genetic cocktail, yet entirely devoid of compassion.

This is the world of The Drowned Cities, and it is bleak and near-hopeless. Kids are bred tough, and Mahlia, a castoff child with Chinese and African-American heritage, considers herself one of the toughest. The safest ties to make in this kind of world are no ties, yet she has somehow found a life assisting the kind Dr Mahfouz and ribbing the scrawny tagalong Mouse, who she owes her life to. Loyalty is a battered trait in Mahlia's world, but when Mouse is in danger, Mahlia realises she actually possesses some of that rare stuff, and she is launched into the jungle in search of life and peace -- for herself, and for Mouse.

The Drowned Cities is forget-to-breathe, gut-wrenching stuff. It is intense, violent, and brutal. The child soldiers -- whose stories are startingly reminiscent of the lives of child soldiers today -- are hardened and soul-dead. Their lives are ones of tangled superstitions, drugs, fragile allegiances, and violence. Bacigalupi does a good job of portraying the intensity of these kids' existences without being too explicit. It's edgy, but only the violence is truly graphic.

The Drowned Cities completely avoids the dreaded Book Two Syndrome; in my opinion, it is far better than Ship-Breaker. Bacigalupi (and isn't that just the coolest author name?) does an amazing job and the prose is flawless, but I'll leave it to you to decide whether you're up to enjoying this book's intensity.

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